I have a confession to make. For all the cinematic knowledge that I proudly claim to have, the work of Laurel and Hardy has never been something that I knew anything about. And when I say anything, I mean not being entirely sure which was Laurel and which was Hardy for starters! Sure, the names loomed large, and the still imagery was iconic, but as for any kind of details, I was completely ignorant. Lucky, then, that this movie has come along to hopefully fill in a few gaps for me.
As you might imagine, Stan & Ollie tells the story of legendary comedy double act Stan Laurel (Steve Coogan) and Oliver Hardy (John C. Reilly), focusing specifically on a period in 1953 when, towards the end of their careers, they embarked on a gruelling theatre tour across England and Ireland. With their glory days behind them and personal and professional tensions coming to the boil, the film examines the complicated relationship between the two men, a relationship filled with equal parts respect, jealousy, co-dependence, regrets, companionship, and most importantly, love.
I expected Stan & Ollie to be a pleasant Sunday afternoon type film, the kind of film that does what it says on the tin, but I’m pleased to say that it is actually a little more than that. In terms of end of career, ‘one last go at the rodeo’ type narratives, the central premise of the film doesn’t bring anything new to the genre party. Through a combination, though, of a some stand out performances and my own nostalgia for everything old and legendary Hollywood, the picture overall feels both sweet and sad, both fun and tragic, running the full gambit of emotions but still feeling breezy and light at the same time.
The audience are treated to lots of classic Laurel and Hardy style high jinks, both in the recreations of their stage performances and in some cleverly inserted real life slap stick moments, but what feels most striking about the film is the touching insight we get in to the behind the scenes connection between to the two comedy giants. Underneath the over the top skits, and the music hall ditties, we see a pair of guys who genuinely care for one another, who connect on a much deeper level than just colleagues. Despite their grudges and their differences, Stan and Ollie are a pair with decades of bonding behind them, a pair who couldn’t be without each other no matter how much they thought they might like to try.
Their relationship is portrayed with the kind of nuance that you generally only get to see between female characters, and it is both heartwarming and heartbreaking to follow their ups and downs as factors like ailing health and waning stardom come in to play. I certainly didn’t expect to sit down to watch Stan & Ollie and be moved to tears, but let me tell you, that is precisely what happened.
Barely knowing the details of the real deal, I can’t attest to the impersonation factor of the two leading roles, but in terms of sheer performance and enjoyment, both John C. Reilly and Steve Coogan are excellent. As Oliver Hardy, Reilly is a big, charming, cuddly bear, a guy with a big heart, a heart with the strength sadly seeping out of it with each strenuous performance. There is a lot of prosthetic work to deal with to achieve the right aesthetic, but Reilly makes you believe in the character that he has created, I, for one, never felt my mind wondering to what kind of fat suit he was wearing or what kind of fake double chin he was rocking. His characterisation is endearing and likeable, perfect for the part.
The stand out star of the show, though, by far, is Steve Coogan as Stan Laurel. As the quieter, more subdued of the two, Coogan taps in to a silent sweetness, and a poignant melancholy that turns out to the beating heart of the picture. As the healthier partner, Stan is faced with coming to terms with the inevitable conclusion of his relationship with Ollie, and there is something about Coogan’s sadness and concern that is deeply moving. I’ll admit that I was somewhat dumfounded when his recent BAFTA nomination for Best Actor was announced, but having now seen the film, I can’t disagree with the nod. He broke my heart.
Playing off Stan and Ollie are Nina Arianda and Shirley Henderson as their respective wives, Ida and Lucille, and the two actresses form an enjoyable secondary double act of their own. Arianda in particular as Stan’s hot blooded, no nonsense, fast talking Russian partner manages to steal every scene in which she appears!
Overall, Stan & Ollie is a massively pleasant surprise. A film packed with genuine heart and charm that moved me in a way I did not expect. Is it the world’s best biographical picture? No. Does every single new release have to try to be? No. It might not take any risks outside of the its genre conventions, but thanks to some really great performances, and a one truly great one by Steve Coogan, the film transpires to be a hugely enjoyable look at one of the most special bonds and partnerships in show business history.